Treasured memento survives wildfires

Treasured memento survives wildfires

Memorial plaque found by fishermen in East Kootenay backcountry

Two fishermen caught more than they bargained for while up in the backcountry behind Whiteswan Lake.

Greg Shyba and Chuck Vaugeois have been coming to the Columbia Valley for years to fish in the area, more than 50 kilometres up a logging road by the north arm of the White River. Mr. Shyba is a Calgary resident with a second home in the Valley. Mr. Vaugeois was up from Vancouver for the excursion.

The area faced “extensive fire damage” from recent forest fires, with burnt out swaths of trees all around their fishing hole, describes Mr. Shyba. When the two men stopped for lunch by their vehicle, a glint of metal caught their eyes. Off in the distance, they spotted a memorial plaque and an ornate man-made flower attached to a damaged tree.

The plaque reads: Phyllis B. McKay, Feb 28 1926- Feb 25 2000. Robert L. McKay Dec 29 1954- Jan 23 2004. Rest in peace.

“We were surprised to see that it was a pretty elaborate metal flower and names on a plaque way out there,” says Mr. Shyba.

Due to the wildfires, salvage operations were happening all over the area. They speculated that tree may be in the path of chainsaw destruction, so took pictures with the idea of trying to track down the family. Google searches back home proved unfruitful, but when Mr. Vaugeois took the message to Facebook, a friend of the plaque’s namesakes spotted the post and connected them to Barbara Fenton, daughter to Phyllis and sister to Robert.

A week later, Mr. Shyba went back to the spot and removed the plaque to return it to the family. The next day, the Fentons drove to Windermere to meet Mr. Shyba for the exchange; he to give her the plaque, she to extend her family’s gratitude to the kindhearted strangers.

“It was pretty meaningful to them, and (she was emotional) that we had gone to the effort of trying to locate her,” Mr. Shyba shares.

Mrs. Fenton was overwhelmed with gratitude to the men for the recovered plaque.

“It’s amazing, truly amazing,” shares Mrs. Fenton from her Kimberley home. “I can’t tell you what this means to us.”

The area where the plaque was placed was a family favourite spot. She shares that when she and her husband got married, their whole family actually camped there for the newlywed’s honeymoon.

“Everyone thought my husband was crazy,” Mrs. Fenton recalls with a chuckle.

When her mother passed away in 2000, the family knew just the spot they wanted to put a memorial plaque. In her mind’s eye, Mrs. Fenton goes back to there, to a place she hasn’t visited in person for quite some time: “It was absolutely beautiful. You could look down onto the White River from where we camped; the water was as clear as a bell. On the other side, you could see the mountains where my husband and brothers and dad all climbed up looking for animals … it’s absolutely gorgeous up there.”

When one of her two brothers passed away a few years later, they installed an updated plaque.

The Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations is harvesting trees in the area because of wildfire damage. The salvage harvesting will be completed in two areas located about 400 metres south of the family’s favourite place.

For the McKay family, they will forever be grateful to the thoughtful strangers who took the time to bring their memorial home safe and sound.

“We want to get it cleaned up a little bit more, and come next summer when we know logging is finished, we plan on welding a metal stake to it. And we’re going to go back up there and drive that stake into the ground,” asserts Mrs. Fenton.

As for Mr. Shyba and Mr. Vaugeois, they will continue to keep their eyes peeled in the backcountry, looking for touchstones to the past as they embrace the nature around them. While wildfires steal much from many, Mr. Shyba and Mr. Vaugeois’ actions mean for at least one family, it has not taken the evidence of a family’s memories away.